Meet the simplest omega-3 fatty acid of them all--ALA. It forms a carbon chain of only 18 carbons. Our bodies cannot make it from scratch. Since our bodies lack the enzymes necessary to produce ALA, it is "essential" to obtain it from our diets.
You can find small to moderate amounts of ALA in a wide variety of plant foods, such as flaxseed and flaxseed oil, walnuts and walnut oil, canola and soybean oil. Other sources include leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, purslane, chia seeds, camelina or perilla seed oil.
The "Black Sheep"
Although it's an omega-3 fatty acid, ALA doesn't receive as much attention. The fact is the health benefits of EPA and DHA outshine ALA. In fact, ALA mainly gets credit only for its ability to convert to EPA and DHA. Its contributing role to health as an individual fatty acid is still unclear in ongoing research.
"If ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA, I can rely on ALA for all my omega-3 needs, right?" Wrong. Although this conversion occurs rather quickly, it is unfortunately very inefficient and unreliable. For example, if you consumed 1,000 mg of ALA, you would only be able to produce, at most, about 80 mg of EPA and 0-40 mg of DHA. One study found as little as 0.3% of ALA converted to EPA and less than 0.01% of ALA converted to DHA. That is far too limited for our body's omega-3 demand.
This conversion process is also picky-- the conditions have to be just right. For example, the more saturated fats and omega-6 fats in the diet, the less ALA is converted because these fats compete for enzymes and ALA usually loses. This conversion becomes even more ineffecient without a good supply of certain nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin B6, zinc, and magnesium.
So what good is ALA for anyway, you may wonder. Aside from its rather restricted conversion to EPA or DHA, the body uses ALA as an energy source. Unlike EPA and DHA, ALA does not have metabolites involved in balancing inflammation in the body. Also, unlike EPA and DHA, ALA is not found in high concentrations in the cell membrane.
Although it isn't the most popular essential fatty acid, it is still essential. Without it, our diets and health would be incomplete. A deficiency in essential fatty acids can manifest as a dry, scaly rash, greater susceptibility to infection, poor wound healing, and decreased growth in children. Other signs of low ALA include a tingling sensation or loss of motor coordination.
A healthy, balanced diet makes it relatively easy to get your essential ALA. Such a diet should include leafy green vegetables, oils, nuts, and seeds. Most food sources of ALA are also good sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and unsaturated fatty acids. Flaxseed oil is the richest source of ALA, with 7.25 grams per tablespoon. EnergyFirst's Omega Oil and Omega Mix Blend are high-quality sources of ALA from raw, certified organic flax seed oil, pumpkin seed oil, sesame seed oil, and sunflower seed oil.